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Tom Sarkus
NETL Expert Outlines Shifts in the Power Plant Workforce Landscape and Offers Path Forward

As part of the ongoing POWERGEN+ series of presentations, NETL’s Tom Sarkus provided an in-depth look at how the power plant workforce will change in both the near- and long-term, as markets shift toward renewables, new technologies and operations emerge and workplace demographics and expectations evolve.

“The new Administration is committed to both decarbonization goals as well as workforce development for areas that have been hard hit by declining industries,” Sarkus said. “Large-scale renewables projects have now levelized cost of energy at or below fossil energy marginal costs, and we are seeing many states setting bold renewable energy goals. All of this points toward a paradigm shift in the power plant workforce that we can leverage for maximum benefits.”

During the broadcast of his presentation “Future Power Plant Workforce Needs and Challenges,” Sarkus gave examples of several new emerging technologies being deployed in plants to increase efficiency, enable flexibility and ensure reliability, including development of several technologies funded by NETL such as a neural-network-based intelligent plant optimization system and robotic boiler inspection technology. He also covered workforce implications of this changing landscape.

“The power company employee of the future will likely look much different than today — more agile, continuously innovating and intentionally collaborating,” Sarkus said. “For example, the manager of a future smart plant would divide his or her time much differently than today’s plant managers. They might spend far less time on reporting, administering and resource planning and far more time on analysis, innovation and process optimization.”

After describing the critical needs and challenges of the future power generation workforce, Sarkus laid out a path forward for preparing the workforce for these coming changes. To this end, Sarkus highlighted NETL’s STEM Education and Outreach Program, including K-12 STEM Education and Outreach and College and University Programs, as well as the Regional Workforce Initiative (RWFI), which works to deploy the lab’s breakthroughs on cleaner energy and advanced manufacturing directly into local communities in the Appalachian region.

Sarkus also highlighted work by NETL and the Appalachian Regional Commission to expand a high-tech workforce in energy and related industries. Five projects were discussed that aimed to provide equipment upgrades, expanded programs, hands-on training, robotics training and development of other specialty skills across the Appalachian region.

In conclusion, Sarkus further solidified a plan to fill the gap for skills and jobs. He proposed:

  • Engaging the open-talent ecosystem.
  • Developing in-house digital training programs.
  • Implementing automation and new technologies.
  • Investing in strategic partnerships and collaborations.
  • Tapping the knowledge and experience of the retiring workforce.
  • Training for the future though apprenticeship programs.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory develops and commercializes advanced technologies that provide clean energy while safeguarding the environment. NETL’s work supports DOE’s mission to ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy and environmental challenges through transformative science and technology solutions.